Last week I discussed in this column proposed changes to Stephenville’s charter which, if implemented, would reduce the size of the council by two and limit the number of terms a council member could serve. I said at the time they were bad ideas since they would limit the right of the people to choose their city council members, but that I’d be interested in seeing a proposal to let the people vote on the tax rate.
The issue of whether the public should directly vote on the tax rate is actually an issue of representative democracy versus direct democracy. In a representative democracy, the public elects officials to represent it in government and make decisions on its behalf. If the public likes those decisions, it retains its representatives; if it doesn’t, it replaces them when the next election rolls around.
But when the public practices direct democracy it doesn’t elect others to make public policy decisions—it makes those decisions itself. In Texas, one can see examples of direct democracy in constitutional amendment elections, bond elections, and the elections wherein the voters adopted the policy of allowing the purchase of beer and wine in retail outlets and rejected annexation and a prospective tax increase by Ranger College.
Most political scientists and practicing politicians don’t really care for exercises in direct democracy, thinking the public is too ill-informed to make policy decisions, notwithstanding the wisdom the public showed, in my opinion at least, in the votes on alcohol sales and Ranger College.
I personally think our current system of representative democracy works well enough in Stephenville. Having been involved in one capacity or another with city and county government here almost continuously since 1990, I’ve found most of the elected and appointed public servants with whom I’ve been privileged to work to be men and women of honor and ability. But the public’s right to preserve and participate in exercises of direct democracy is nonetheless necessary to remedy decisions made by legislatures with which the public may disagree.
Moreover, the issue of taxes can be contentious and emotional. Even slight fluctuations in the property tax which generate or sacrifice little revenue—a one cent change will change the tax bill of the owner of a $100,000 home by ten dollars a year– will provoke outpourings of anger or gratitude after the fact. Having the public vote on the tax rate, if the mechanics can be worked out, and subject to the proviso that the budget must be balanced, might give the public more ownership and less heartburn over the issue. Besides, despite the skepticism of most political scientists and politicians, the public could not possibly do as bad a job in managing governmental finances as the President and the Congress continue to do.
The pattern, at the federal level at least, is obvious: Both parties want to increase spending–the Democrats on social welfare programs and infrastructure; the Republicans on defense spending. And whatever the respective merits on spending more on welfare, infrastructure, and defense (and I personally support increased defense spending), neither party wants to pay for the spending increases. Democrats tell us we can raise money simply by taxing “the rich,” and Republicans say tax cuts will expand the economy and produce enough growth to someday, in the far distant future, balance the budget. In the meantime, the deficit and debt continue to skyrocket.
Given that our current city council has found savings and economies which had eluded the council when I served on it, that it’s kept the tax rate on an even keel, and that the public seems basically satisfied with its work, the need for a public vote on taxes doesn’t seem pressing enough for anyone to propose a charter amendment election over the issue in the near future.
Besides, with the television, the computer, and the internet, interested members of the public have all the tools necessary to take advantage of the financial information available, and thereby participate as informed citizens in the workshops, committee sessions, and council meetings which will soon take place in the run-up to the next fiscal year. Even without a direct formal vote on the questions of taxes and spending, the public can make its voice heard—and vote when the next round of city council elections rolls around. And given the central importance of taxes and spending, the public itself has both the right and the responsibility to participate as it wants, to support and retain whom it wants, and remove whom it wants.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.